Welcome to Sweden,you lunatic, says Karl. Ive just landed in Stockholm,Capital of Scandinavia,where the temperature is a bracing minus 19 degree Celsius. Karl is a Swedish-Syrian architecture student,who I know from Hyderabad,where he spent many years. Come on,let us get you a drink, he says. It is midnight and Arlanda airport is deserted. We hop on and off a bus heading to a luxury hotel inside the airport perimeter.
Atop a small hill,glittering in the halogen,is a Boeing 747. It is an icy night and,weighed down by luggage,we make slow headway. Inside,it is warm; after all the insulation has been designed to keep passengers comfortable at 40,000 feet.
This is the famed Jumbo Stay hostel. Entrepreneur Oscar Dios is responsible for getting this rather radical idea off the ground. At the door you take off your shoes and are issued paper slippers. The First Class cabin in the nose is now the bar. At this hour it is filled with raucous students. The flight deck is now an en-suite bedroom; Dios has more ambitious plans,to convert the engines into capsule rooms and so forth.
It must be the alcohol surging through my bloodstream but I feel a little sorry for the Boeing. Did it ever imagine this,when it rolled onto the tarmac that promise-filled day in Seattle? Does it dream of runways,of flight,of a reverie of wings? Where do Boeings go when they die? I ask the barman. We are closing for the night,sir, he says.
Our travel options have narrowed to the hourly shuttle that runs from Arlanda to the Cityterminalen. We can see the twin headlights of the waiting Volvo. My friend urges me to run while he gets tickets from the dispensing machine. Put your luggage on the doorway,delay him somehow! he cries.
I try my best and the bus driver registers his annoyance,Im running late. But my tactics work and Karl comes running up. The driver punches the tickets with a disapproving grunt. We have left at 3:01 am.
Inside,the giant shuttle is totally empty. We are the only two passengers. Typical Swedish mentality, says Karl referring to the driver. They follow a Weberian logic, he says,riffing on the great German social scientist of the last century. It is more important to have the bus go on time than actually have any passengers this is the general Swedish outlook. He goes on,These people are not really evil,they are just so mechanical,when they follow the rules,they dont even consider the moral implications of any action.
The following day greets us with louring skies. The city is spread over an archipelago and we are headed to Sodermalm at the archipelagos heart. Stockholm has the worlds most expensive public transport network so Im happy when Karl assures me that it is on him. When we near the turnstile with its glass doors,I am surprised when Karl instructs me to observe the commuters carefully. I thought you said you were going to buy the tickets, I say. Teach a man to fish, he retorts angrily. Im an urban tactical theorist, he explains. Follow people not too close,not too far, he says,You have to be the exact distance so when they put their card in,you just follow behind them. He demonstrates by first acquiring his mark,a briskly moving businessman and using the brief window of opportunity to go through.
Theorists such as him naturally run up against more practical-minded ticket collectors from time to time. A particularly hostile environment is the Central station. He imparts more knowledge. Dont take the escalators there,they wait for you at the top and you cant turn back.
We are soon walking through Vasastan,a major district of the city. Many areas have a -stan suffix,endearing to my Indian ears. Karl explains that it is a contraction of staden or town. The quick-fading light catches the rotunda of the Stockholm Public Library. Designed by architect Gunnar Asplund,it is a monumental cylinder in red embossed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. The interiors are breathtaking but the collection is in Swedish. If Borges imagined paradise as a kind of library,then hell is a library full of books you cant read. We continue,through Gamla Stan,and finally reach Sodermalm.
Sodermalm island was the stage for many an epic scene in the doom-laden myths of the Norsemen. At the centre is a towering income tax building called the Skatteskrapan,literally the Tax Scraper. We go up to the Skybar on the top floor. It is already Nordic twilight. There is a perpetual afterglow in the sky,an after-image in gods eye of epic battles,of Thors lightning,of Odins flashing spear,of wars with the Giants who warped the world.
Strolling towards Sergels Torg,the central public square,I spot an Indiska store,part of a very successful chain flogging the whole India exotica for all its worth. Facing the square is the glittering wall of the Kulturhuset or Culture House. We sip coffee in a cafe where the coffee is black as sin. Swedes love coffee and Karl contrasts this with his experience in Hyderabad,the quintessential tea-drinking city. We reminisce about a particularly black tikashan (tea decoction) we had in an Irani cafe in old Hyderabad. Cities,after all,are made of travellers who choose to stop travelling. Overlaid with our memories,cities speak to each other.
We continue on our way. We near Dovas,a favoured watering hole. Inside,the bar is filled with trendy Goths. Karl is furious. It is that damn book, he rails angrily. Gentrification, he says. Tourists are thronging the formerly gritty haunts of central Stockholm and indeed Millenium tour packages are very popular. Fortunately,the bar clears out and the regulars begin to trickle in.
Soon a drunken Russian at the adjoining table jumps into our conversation,objecting to our labelling Tolstoy as the greatest novelist of all time. The man is considerably confused,and believes that Goa is a province of Russia. All efforts to convince him otherwise fail. Have you noticed that Stockholms concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? asks another patron. You are thinking of Amsterdam, I tell him.
Exploring a city is like investigating a crime. You ask questions,meet people,examine the forensics,and a narrator,reliable or not,conveys meaning to the reader .
How to reach: There are frequent flights to Stockholm from Delhi and Mumbai .
Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer